What Do Millennial Women Want? A New Brand of Feminism

18-34 year old women will change the world. I instinctively know this. Why?

Because they think in ways feminists of my generation and generations past can’t.

Perfect example. Ask them who today’s feminists are? Beyonce, Carly Fiorina, Jennifer Lawrence, Sheryl Sandberg all will come up, as they recently did in Georgetown Professor Elizabeth’s Velez’s Feminist Theory class.

Professor Velez explains why. “For this group of women, feminism is as much about personal freedom as it is about activism. It occurs in the cultural space as much as it does in the political one.”

63% of women aged 18-34 years old call themselves a “strong feminist” in contrast to 51% of those aged 35-49 years old and 58% of those aged 65+. Only the Baby Boomers (50-64 years old) self-describe as “strong feminists” in larger numbers. (68%)

So what do 18-34 year old feminists want?

To not be scolded by older feminists about choosing political candidates, to draw attention to issues around domestic violence and sexual assault, and to get equal pay for equal work.

Low on their priority list: “getting more women elected.”

What is their major criticism of older feminists?

That First and Second Wave feminists did not do enough to include men, confront issues of race, sexual orientation, and class in discussions about empowering women.

That is true. We now know all these things collide when trying to empower people. And for too long the feminist agenda centered mostly on rights for middle and upper-class white women.

But in defense of the older generations (Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Audre Lord, Alice Walker, Camille Paglia), I draw attention to the fact that they were some of the first to shatter ceilings and open the paths to personal freedom women enjoy today. They did it without the benefit of social media, the Internet, or their parents’ approval.

For them, the personal was the political because what they did involved very personal risks. Violence and ostracism from society were often the price they paid. That is probably why it is so hard for them to understand feminism removed from collective action.  New Wave feminism is a strange brand for them to embrace. They longed for revolution, sometimes at the cost of their own personal happiness.  Happiness, in their own time, was never the point.

If feminism today needs a rallying figure (and I think we might) Malala Yousafzai seems like a good one. She took three bullets from the Taliban rather than give up going to school in her native Pakistan. She knows the price women pay for equal treatment.

But even if rallying figures are in short supply, I believe there is mutual sympathy and shared acknowledgement of struggle between generations. And while Millennials admire the feminists who inhabit elite and rarefied places in society, most know flexible work schedules, high-paying jobs, and equal treatment are still a long way off for the masses.

I really like Beyonce, but for me passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act was more important for feminism than “Formation.” I hope some Millennials might agree.